At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Catholic Church, Obamacare, and Social Justice

posted by Jack Kerwick

The question concerning the relationship between faith and politics is one that has arrested the attention of many an American.  But it is during election seasons, particularly presidential election seasons, that it assumes a larger than usual importance in the American consciousness.  It is during this time that candidates exhaust themselves explaining the respects in which their religious convictions inform their political convictions.

Religion and politics, though conceptually distinct activities, do indeed intersect in all manner of ways.  Such encounters are much more frequently than not contentious, and sometimes—as in the present case of President Barack Obama’s confrontation with the Catholic Church—they can be downright acrimonious.

In focusing on this episode, we are able to clearly discern the intimate nature of the connection between “religious liberty” and liberty generally, faith and culture, faith and politics, in American life.

The Obama Administration and the Catholic Church

A couple of weeks ago, while attending mass at my local parish, the priest read from a letter written by the Arch Bishop of our diocese.  The subject of the letter was the Health and Human Services Department’s requirement that Catholic institutions provide “free” contraceptives to their employees. 

My Bishop, along with Catholic clergy and laity around the country, insisted that Catholics could not and would not comply with such a law, for inasmuch as it both infringed upon Catholics’ “religious liberty” and coerced them to act in violation of their “consciences,” it was unjust.

Although President Obama later announced that Catholic institutions would be exempted from this demand, that only insurance companies would be legally compelled to comply with it, the truth of the matter is that health care insurers will have no economically viable option but to ultimately shift the costs of making these provisions onto the employer—i.e. the Catholic Church.  Obama, that is, isn’t making any concessions.  He is simply playing the proverbial shell game. 

Thus, the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis Obamacare has not in the least bit altered.

This episode speaks to a range of issues the breadth of which the chattering class, as far as I can determine, has yet to appreciate.  This controversy, as much as any, readily reveals the multiple ways in which faith and politics, the public and the private, relate to one another.   

An Issue of Liberty

Partisans on all sides of this issue tend to frame it in terms of a question of “religious liberty.”  I beg to differ.  Those who speak thus, like those who speak of “economic liberty,” “positive rights,” “negative rights,” and the like, speak confusedly.  What is at issue here is nothing more or less than liberty itself.

The liberty which, as Americans, we claim to prize may very well be a dispensation from God.  I, for one, thank God regularly for it.  But it is something that comes to us directly from the broad dispersal of power and authority of which our constitutional arrangements consist.  To put it more simply, our liberty is comprised of a complex of liberties implied by the federal design that those who framed and ratified the Constitution imposed upon the United States government.  Such explicit “freedoms” as are found in the Bill of Rights and those that are implicit elsewhere throughout the Constitution are the obverse of the federal government’s obligations—namely, its obligations to refrain from undermining its federal character by usurping those “powers” that are reserved to the states.

It has been a long, long time since the federal government has been a genuinely federal government. Still, it is critical that we appreciate the nature of liberty before we proceed to talk about “religious” liberty and the like.  “Religious liberty” is simply the liberty to practice religion.  Because our system of government forbids any person or group from acquiring a monopoly on authority and power, individual Americans are permitted to engage in a staggering array of mutually incompatible pursuits of their own choosing. Religious activity is just one of these engagements. 

In short, what this means is that when the government undercuts the liberty of some Americans to pursue ends of a religious nature, it undercuts the liberty of all Americans to pursue ends of any nature.  Conversely, whenever the government impedes the exercise of liberty for any ends, it impedes the exercise of liberty for religious ends.

This being so, that Catholic institutions will be compelled under Obamacare to subsidize products to which they are opposed is something that should elicit every bit as much outrage from every liberty-loving American as it has elicited from the most orthodox of Catholic clerics.  At the same time, however, Catholics should have been as indignant over the fact that for decades and decades, Americans of all backgrounds have been coerced by a gargantuan federal government to subsidize all manner of practices to which they have been opposed. 

Truth be told, not only is it the case that the Church has been silent; it has actually demanded an ever more intrusive federal government.   

The Quest for ‘Social Justice’

This last point brings me to my present one. 

“Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”   There is a reason that this is an old saying: there is no small measure of truth in it.  It is indeed more than a bit ironic that the very same Catholic Church that for decades has been calling for “social justice” is now reaping what it has sowed. 

The demand for “social justice” is a demand for an ever expansive government.  More specifically, the demand for “social justice” is a demand for an activist government, the kind of government possessed of a large concentration of power sufficient to confiscate the resources of some—“the Haves”—so as to “redistribute” them to others—“the Have Nots.”

“Social justice” is radically incompatible with the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders.  What they referred to as a Republic is what the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott characterized as a “civil association,” an association whose members are related to one another in terms, not of some grand purpose to pursue, but laws to be observed.  These laws neither specify actions in which the associates (citizens) are to engage nor do they dispense substantive satisfactions for them to enjoy. Rather, the laws are “adverbial,” as Oakeshott put it, in that they assert conditions for the associates of civil association to fulfill while engaging in their self-chosen pursuits. 

In these respects, laws are like grammatical rules.  The latter do not prescribe what is to be said. But whatever it is we say, if it is to be decipherable, if it is to gain a hearing, it must conform to the conditions of our language’s grammar.  Similarly, only those actions are permissible that satisfy the conditions posited by the laws.

An association committed to “social justice” is most certainly not a civil association.  It is not a Constitutional Republic. It is what Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.”  In an enterprise association, the government is expected to “lead” its subjects into a Promised Land of one kind or another, a new dispensation in which some ideal condition is realized.  In this case, the case of “social justice,” the ideal is a condition in which material goods achieve a more equal distribution. 

The problem, though, is that in a Constitutional Republic, a civil association, there is no place for any schemes of “social justice,” for the latter is a purpose to which all others must ultimately be subordinated.  That is, the call for “social justice” is the call for citizens to devote—or, more precisely, be made to devote—at least some of their resources in time, energy, and property to the fulfillment of this one over arching purpose.  The call for “social justice” is the call for less individuality, less liberty, and more government.

Yet in a civil association there is no purpose, grand or otherwise, that citizens are compelled to pursue.  And the federal character with which the Framers of our government originally invested it precludes the pursuit of “social justice” for which the Catholic Church and others have been relentlessly calling for decades.             

Conclusion

This election season, perhaps even more so than during seasons past, promises a fairly salient role for religion.  President Obama’s controversial health care law has insured this.  For the first time in a long time Catholics and those of other faiths are acutely aware of the precarious nature of liberty (and “religious” liberty).  Obamacare is just now beginning to reap what it sowed.  To paraphrase Obama’s former pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, Obamacare’s “chickens are coming home to roost.”

My Grandmother and Moral Philosophy

posted by Jack Kerwick

The notion that moral conduct is primarily a matter of “obeying” rules or principles alleged to be universal in scope has figured prominently throughout the modern era.  The moral point of view, according to this line of thought, requires the strictest impartiality.  This idea has been expressed in a variety of idioms, the most dominant of which is the doctrine of “natural” or “human rights.”  Morality, from this perspective, chiefly consists in “respecting” or “protecting” peoples’ “rights.”

In spite of the prevalence of this universal conception of morality, there is an older tradition that has, remarkably, managed to survive to date.  On this older account, morality isn’t about obeying abstract universal principles. Rather, it is about becoming a virtuous person. 

Virtues are not principles to which all rational beings have access.  They are character dispositions that are acquired over time through habit.  And since they are habits, this means that, unlike the knowledge of universal principles, knowledge of virtue cannot be sandwiched between the covers of a textbook or otherwise transmitted through propositions.  Knowledge of virtue can only come through the imitation of a virtuous person.

A virtue-centered approach to morality is, then, the antithesis of a principles-oriented account.  If the latter regards morality as something universal and impartial, the former holds it to be concrete and partial.  We learn about morality, not by being taught about “rights” or “natural law” or “the Form of the Good” or anything else of the kind; rather, we learn about morality through those “little platoons”—our families, churches, and local communities—to which Edmund Burke famously alluded.   

It is against the backdrop of this continuing conflict of moral visions that I find myself thinking about my grandmother, Ferrera Wieser. 

On Friday, March 9, while surrounded by her family, my grandmother—my Nonna, as her grandchildren affectionately referred to her—died at the age of 88.

Born Ferrara Veronica Squarcia, Nonna was the second youngest of six children born to Christofero and Barbara Squarcia, Italian immigrants who made America—and little Lambertville, New Jersey—their new home during the second decade of the twentieth century. 

I would spend hours and hours as I grew older speaking to my grandfather about his youth.  The ease with which he recalled his childhood memories was rivaled only by that with which he relayed them.  “Pop Pop” would get a visible glimmer in his eye as he catapulted me to 1930’sNew York City, where he was born and reared.  With his wife, Nonna, things were, unfortunately, otherwise.  She couldn’t recollect all that much, but the few stories that she did share were enough bring into focus a reasonably coherent impression of her childhood: it was good.

Nonna and her siblings were exceptionally close and they were all devoted to their parents.  Her family’s home was located on a hill—“Cottage Hill”—that led away from town.  In those days, long before television and well before it would become commonplace for every American family to own a car, Nonna and her family would entertain themselves by way of singing songs and playing games.  At Christmastime, they would trek out into the woods to cut down a tree, and on Christmas morning, each sibling could anticipate receiving, among one or maybe two other things, a piece of fruit. 

But all was not fun and games in the Squarcia household.

My great grandfather was a shoe repairman. His shop was in the hub of town, about a thirty minute walk from his home.  As I said, the Squarcias had no car, and so my grandmother, as a very young girl, would sometimes be entrusted with delivering her father his lunch. In addition to this responsibility (and who knows how many others), it was also left to her to cap the bottles into which her father would pour his homemade beer.

When she entered grade school, apparently from a heightened self-consciousness regarding her Italian name, she identified herself, not asFerrara, but as “Mary.”  The name stuck and until this day, most people who know her know her as Mary.

In 1946, she married my grandfather, Frank Wieser.  They would build a life together that would include five children, eight grandchildren, and, eventually, three great- grandchildren.  Sadly, Pop Pop wouldn’t live to meet his great-grandchildren. In 2007, after 61 years of marriage with Nonna, he passed away.

My grandparents lived but five blocks away from my parents’ home.  Thus, along with my siblings and, for that matter, all of my cousins, I essentially grew up in their house. It was nothing fancy, this house of theirs, and it took them nearly twenty years to acquire it.  Being of modest size, my grandparents’ house was typical of the residences of their lower middle class neighborhood.  But it was theirs.  It was the first and last house that they would ever own, for they remained within its walls for the rest of their lives. It is there that they would supply their family with a rich fund of memories.

Family was everything for Nonna (and Pop Pop too, of course).  It wasn’t just every holiday and birthday that we celebrated at their home.  When I was growing up, every weekend—Saturday and Sunday—may as well have been a holiday weekend, for my entire family would gather at my grandparents’ where we would eat—“Mangia!” (“Eat!”) Nonna would order—and the adults would play cards.

Through the family’s struggles and hardships, my grandparents were the glue that would preserve its integrity.

And preserve it they did.

Nonna was not in the least bit politically oriented.  My aunt may have dragged her off on a couple of occasions to vote, but as far as knowledge of current events is concerned, my grandmother had not a speck of it.  She didn’t know what was going on in the world and she didn’t care to know.  What this means is that unlike so many of our contemporaries, she most certainly did not measure her moral standing according to the positions that she took on the political issues of the day.  Nonna had no such positions.

I never once heard my grandmother speak of “rights,” whether “natural,” “human,” or otherwise.  In fact, for that matter, notwithstanding few exceptions, Nonna scarcely spoke about morality at all.

She lived it.

And she lived it well, without any sense of self-consciousness, and certainly not in a manner that would suggest that she was trying to “apply” principles to specific situations.

No one is ever just a person. Each of us is someone’s child. Most of us have friends, siblings, and colleagues.  Some of us are spouses, parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents.  Each persona that we assume comes with obligations and virtues that are peculiar to it.  It is by way of discharging these duties and fostering these excellences that we become the people, the moral agents, who we are.

Nonna masterfully played out each of the roles into which life cast her.  No one who knew her would even dare to suggest otherwise.

St. Francis of Assisiis said to have admonished his disciples to preach the Gospel—and, when necessary, to use words.  When it came to virtue, Nonna was short on words but long on action.  The difference, though, between the disciples of Saint Francis, on the one hand, and Nonna, on the other, is that while the former intended to instruct others, Nonna acted as if she no more intended to teach others in the way of virtue than rain intends to moisten the Earth.  Her virtue was her nature.

The passing of my grandmother marks the passing of an era.  Our family will miss her more than words can express.  She was among the finest human beings that we ever could have known.  Yet we can thank God that we had her with us, and had her with us for as long as we did. 

Rest in peace Nonna (September 13, 1923-March 9, 2012).   

Originally published at The New American 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Haley’s Fraudulent Roots

posted by Jack Kerwick

This is the 35th anniversary of the ground breaking television miniseries, Roots.  Based on Alex Haley’s wildly successful novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the epic miniseries starred an ensemble cast—several members of which recently visited with Oprah Winfrey on her new network (OWN) to commemorate this occasion.

This is worth commenting upon only because, for as provocative and entertaining as both book and movie undoubtedly are—I read the book twice and watched the miniseries numerous times—Roots, the author’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, is a work of fiction through and through.  To listen to Oprah and the actors with whom she was accompanied, one could be forgiven for regarding this as news.

In fact, to describe Roots merely as “fiction” is to treat Haley with more charity than he deserves.  In at least three critical respects, Haley was downright dishonest.

Haley and the History of Slavery

Black commentator Stanley Crouch doesn’t mince words when it comes to Alex Haley.  Haley, Crouch insists, was a “ruthless hustler” and “one of the biggest damn liars this country has ever seen.”  Crouch likens Haley to Tawana Brawley, the young black woman who infamously lied about being raped and humiliated by a white police officer.  Like the lie concocted by Brawley and abetted by the likes of Al Sharpton, Haley’s story is also a “hoax” that beautifully illustrates “how history and tragic fact can be pillaged by an individual willing to exploit whatever the naïve might consider sacred.” 

Crouch explains: “Haley came on the scene when Negroes were becoming obsessed with their African ancestry and were having overwrought reactions to a tale of slavery that always, conveniently, left out the crucial role of the cooperative and profiting Africans.” 

Black thinker Thomas Sowell, who has written prolifically on race and slavery, makes the same point as Crouch—even if not quite as bluntly.  Regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Sowell remarks that Roots “presented some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened—false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.”

For instance, “Roots has a white man leading a slave raid in West Africa, where the hero, Kunta Kinte [supposedly, Haley’s ancestor] was captured, looking bewildered at the chains put on him as he was led away in bondage.”  Moreover, even “the village elders” likewise appeared perplexed by the sight of these “white men” who were “carrying their people away.”  In glaring contrast to this depiction, Sowell correctly asserts, the location from which Kunta Kinte was taken—West Africa—had been “a center of slave trading before the first white man arrived there—and slavery continues in parts of it to this very moment.”  He adds: “Africans sold vast numbers of other Africans to Europeans.  But they hardly let Europeans go running around in their territory, catching people willy-nilly” (emphasis added). 

According to Sowell, Roots did more harm than good in fueling “the gross misconception that slavery was about white people enslaving black people.” In reality, “the tragedy of slavery was of a far greater magnitude than that.”  Slavery knew no racial boundaries.  “People of every race and color were both slaves and enslavers, for thousands of years, all around the world.”  Sowell likens slavery to cancer in that it transcends time and place.  He concludes: “If reparations were to be paid for slavery, everybody on this planet would owe everybody else.” 

Hayley was, to put it mildly, a “historical revisionist” when it came to the issue of slavery.  But this in and of itself certainly doesn’t warrant the verdict, issued in no uncertain terms by Stanley Crouch, that Hayley was a “ruthless hustler.” After all, Hayley’s “historical revisionism” on this score is very much a function of the leftist moral imagination that came to dominate the post-1960’s intelligentsia.  Rather, if Hayley could be said to be guilty of nothing more than subscription to an intellectually and ethically shallow political-moral vision, it would not be difficult to issue him a pardon.

Yet matters are far worse than this.

Haley and Plagiarism

As Philip Nobile writes, Haley was a “literary rogue,” an “impostor” whose “prose was so inept that he required ghosts [ghost writers] throughout his career.” Upon reading Haley’s posthumously released private papers and interviewing one of his original editors for Roots, Nobile was able to determine that the latter’s real author was Murray Fisher, Haley’s editor from his time at Playboy.  Fisher was also, incidentally, white.

This piece of deception, however, is part and parcel of a much larger web of the same.

At least Fisher consented to write Roots.  Harry Courlander did not.     

In the late 1960’s, Harry Courlander—a white man—composed The African, a fictional work about a young African boy who is captured, made to endure the horrors of the mid-Atlantic passage, and eventually sold into slavery in America.  In 1978 he sued Haley for plagiarism.  Upon expressing regret that at least 81 passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Courlander’s novel and recast in Roots, and upon the Judge’s unambiguous finding that Haley was guilty of plagiarism, Haley agreed to an out of court settlement whereby he would pay Courlander $650,000 (roughly 2 million dollars in today’s terms).   

In his pre-trial memorandum, Courlander argued that had Haley not copied from his novel, “Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could written Roots without The African [.]”  Roots, Courlander continues, “copied [from The African] language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.”

An English professor from Columbia University, Michael Wood, submitted an Expert Witness Report to the court.  His comparative analysis of the two novels thoroughly substantiated Courlander’s allegations.  “The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and television dramatization of Roots,” he declared, “is clear and irrefutable.” The plagiarism, Wood insisted, “is significant and extensive [.]” Whether it is “copied” or “modified,” The African is “always” “consulted” by the author of Roots.  The “essential elements” of Courlander’s work—“phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and plot”—constitute “the life” of Roots.

Judge Robert J. Ward concluded: “Copying there was, period.”  Years later, Ward came forth in an interview with the BBC and admitted that Haley “had perpetrated a hoax on the public.” 

Although during the trial Haley swore that he personally had never read The African, that “the life” of Courlander’s book had found its way into Roots courtesy of careless research assistants who failed to document their material, a “minorities’ studies” professor, Joseph Brucac from Skidmore College, signed a sworn affidavit in which he noted that he and Haley had indeed discussed The African at least five years prior to the publication of Roots. In fact, Brucac even lent Haley his own copy of it.

Haley and his Roots

His plagiarism aside, as professional genealogists Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills have demonstrated beyond a doubt, Haley’s claims to the contrary aside, there is no formal documentation to corroborate “the oral tradition” regarding his family history.  Moreover, the very documentation to which he refers—“plantation records, wills, census records”—repudiates this tradition.  The Mills are to the point: “In truth, those same plantation records, wills, and censuses cited by Mr. Haley not only fail to document his story, but they contradict each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots” (emphases original)!

Haley claims that his great-great-great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte, arrived inAnnapolis,Marylandupon the slave ship, the Lord Ligonier, in September of 1767.  There he was purchased by John Waller of Spotsylvania County,Virginia, who gave him the name “Toby.” 

But Haley can know for sure that Kunta Kinte is Toby if and only if he is correct regarding the date of Kunta’s arrival in America.  As the Mills assert, “this determination of date of arrival is crucial to the establishment of Kinte’s American identity” (emphasis original).  The problem, for Haley, is that he pre-selected this date.  Precisely the same documentation upon which he relies to establish that his ancestor and the Waller slave Toby are one and the same person actually proves that this is impossible. “Had Mr. Hayley not chosen arbitrarily to limit his research to only those records filed after the arrival of the ship that he had already ‘identified’ upon questionable premises, had his research indeed been as exhaustive as assumed, he would have discovered that this Waller slave Toby appeared in six separate documents of record over a period of four years preceding the arrival of the Lord Ligonier” (emphasis original).   

In short: “Toby Waller was not Kunta Kinte.”     

The slave Toby belonged to the Wallers, but there is no record as to when, or even if, he was purchased.  It appears that, against Haley’s account, he first belonged to Dr. William Waller and was then conveyed to his brother John.  Sometime later, Toby once more became the property of William.  It would also seem that Toby Waller died between five and ten years prior to the birth of “Kizzy,” the woman who Haley says Kunta Kinte fathered.

As to the person with whom Kunta is supposed to have fathered Kizzy—Haley identifies her as “Bell”—there is no record.  There is an “Isbell” who belonged to the father of John and William Waller.  Yet she never belonged to either of his two sons.  Thus, she could not have been married to Toby. 

Neither are there any documents in existence that confirm anything that Haley has to say about the woman who he describes as his great-great-great grandmother—Kizzy.

According to Haley, compliments of William Waller’s niece and Kizzy’s childhood friend, “Missy Anne,” Kizzy was literate.  When her childhood sweetheart “Noah” planned to escape from the Waller plantation, Kizzy armed him with a traveling pass on which she forged Missy Anne’s name.  Noah was caught, tortured into confessing the source of the traveling pass, and sold. Kizzy then too was sold to Tom Lea, of North Carolina. 

The problem here is that there are no records to substantiate any of this.  What we can determine is that there is no way that Anne Waller and the Kizzy about whom Haley speaks could have been childhood friends, for Waller was already a grown woman in her twenties by the time that Kizzy was supposed to have been born. 

The Mills state that “there remains the inarguable conclusion that the 182 pages and thirty-nine chapters in which theVirginialives of Haley’s ‘ancestors’ are chronicled have no basis in fact.  Neither of the two relationships that are crucial to his pedigree (the identity of Kizzy as daughter of Kinte alias Toby, and the relationship of Bell as wife of Kinte and mother of Kizzy) can be established by even the weakest genealogical evidence.”

If “theVirginia chapters of his saga” fail abysmally to “represent a documented ancestry for” Haley “or for the descendants of the white family alleged to have owned his family,” the North Carolina chapters beginning with Kizzy’s arrival at the property of Tom Lea is just as abysmal in these regards.  Not only is Tom Lea—who is allegedly Haley’s ancestor by virtue of his rape of Kizzy—not the poor white trash that Haley depicts him as; there is zero evidence that he ever owned a slave name “Kizzy.”

It isn’t just radical inconsistencies in Haley’s antebellum ancestry with which he has to reckon.  There are all sorts of questions that his claims on the part of his post-Civil War ancestry raise as well.   As the Mills say, “not only the authenticity of Roots evidence is called into question by the total absence of documentation for any alleged event, individual, or relationship, but doubt also falls upon the very essence of family life portrayed in Roots” (emphasis added).

There is one final point.  Roots climaxes with Haley discovering the village from which his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was supposed to have been captured.  Supposedly, a griot from the village of Juffure—Fofana—confirmed the account of Kinte’s abduction that Haley had grown up hearing about from his aunts.

Professor Donald R. Wright, “a specialist in African pre-history with extensive experience in the collection of Gambian oral traditions,” visited Juffure twice.  What he discovered was that Fofana was a fake.  Fofana “showed no inclination to recite long (or short) genealogies of any families.”  When it came to Kunta Kinte, though, “he was eager…to speak [.]”  Kinte, Wright continues, “was the only individual about whom Fofana provided any specific information.”

There is a reason for this.  In advance of his exchange with Fofana, Haley relayed to Gambian officials the account of Kunta Kinte’s capture that had supposedly been transmitted to him by his relatives.  He told them as well that it was confirmation of this account that he sought.  Seeing the potentially boundless profits to be reaped from tourism and the like, the officials insured that Haley would hear what he wanted to hear. 

The second time Professor Wright visited Juffure he did not seek out Fofana by name.  Rather, he sought out “the person best versed in the history of the village and its families.” Wright was taken to listen to four people.  Fofana’s name was never even mentioned.   

Conclusion

Alex Haley’s Roots is undeniably as epic a television drama as it is a book.  Yet this does nothing to change the fact that neither version conveys fact.  Nor does it alter the sad truth that Haley was a fraud.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

 

 

      

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”

posted by Jack Kerwick
Although theory and practice are indeed mutually distinct domains, their distinctness should never be taken for exclusiveness. Theory is as distinct from practice as is the spider from its web or the bird from its nest. Moreover, just as the web arises from the spider and the nest from the bird, so too is theory born from reflection on practice. This can be seen for the truth that it is whether we are attending to contemporary political works spun from more commonplace imaginations or the philosophical masterpieces of the Western tradition. 
 
Some of these latter, like Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan, labor hard to conceal their indebtedness to the contingencies of place and time. They at least appear to have more or less emancipated themselves from the circumstantial concerns that provoked them. Others, like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, are much less reserved about revealing the impulse driving their pursuits.
 
It is within this later vein that Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa is squarely located.
 
The neglect with which this book has been treated is as sore as it is tragic. 
 
South Africa is the place that Mercer called home for a good part of her life (she has also lived in Israel). She came of age under the rule of the white Afrikaner minority—“apartheid”—and witnessed up close and quite personally its passage into the annals of history. While there is no love loss between Mercer and apartheid—at no time does she hesitate to convict it of injustice—it isn’t apartheid that drove her to leave many of her relatives and friends behind so that she could emigrate to America.
 
No, Mercer’s flight from her old homeland is part and parcel of a virtual exodus of South Africans. And for this abrupt turn of events the African National Congress deserves all of the thanks.
 
The question of identity is the question: what makes any given thing the same thing at one time as it is at another time? In his Politics, Aristotle seeks to secure the criterion by which the identity of a political association can be established. Upon considering some proposals—territorial limits, “the stock” of the residents, etc.—he concludes that a political association is the same association at one juncture as at another if and only if its constitution remains the same. The constitution of a political association refers to the kind of government that defines it. 
 
By Aristotle’s standard, then, post-apartheid South Africa is most definitely not the same political association as its apartheid-era predecessor. However, whether we accept Aristotle’s definition or not, as Mercer makes abundantly—painfully—clear, whatever continuity may be said to have existed at one time between the Old South Africa and the New is no longer legible.
 
Cannibal is a provocative account of the depths to which South Africa has degenerated under the rule of the African National Congress. Like the gifted writer that she is, Mercer enlists every syllable in the service of catapulting the reader into the world of the New South Africa, a country within which, courtesy of the corruption that pervades the ANC, unimaginably barbaric criminality has become an intractable feature of everyday life. The issue of crime has a particularly personal dimension for Mercer, for several members of her own family have been brutalized. 
 
South Africa’s criminals act with a ruthlessness and an abandonment that would make even the most hardened residents of high crime areas in America blush. Whether it is the gang raping of young girls, the torturing of home owners who had the misfortune of awaking in the middle of the night to discover intruders on their property, or the forcible confiscation of the farm lands that South Africa’s most industrious and productive residents have spent their lives cultivating, crime in post-apartheid South Africa knows no bounds in either the frequency with which it occurs or the blood that it leaves in its wake.
 
Mercer spends an entire chapter identifying—and dismantling—the litany of conventional excuses that have been devised to explain away post-apartheid misery: “racism,” “post-colonialism,” “exploitation,” and the like. With the greatest of ease she obliterates them. It is here that her pen becomes the machete with which she slashes away at the nonsense that passes for deep thought among the Western intelligentsia.
 
Neither, however, does Mercer countenance any reductionist biological accounts of black-white differences. Such an approach is problematic for more than one reason, but especially because it would, ultimately, amount to but one more “root-cause.” Mercer doesn’t say this. For that matter, I haven’t heard any one else say it either. But a biologically-centered theory of human conduct, like those emphatically non-biological approaches that Mercer effortlessly puts out to pasture, is a species of precisely that hegemonic power with which Mercer struggles throughout her captivating work.
 
This “power” is what others have called “rationalism,” by far and away the dominant intellectual disposition of the modern West.  
 
Rationalism comes in many degrees, but, at the very least, what all forms of modern rationalism seem to share in common is a penchant for the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular. To put it differently, the concepts of tradition, culture, and custom figure minimally, if at all, in the thought of the rationalist. Such concepts bespeak a provinciality that is anathema to the rationalist mind, a mind that prefers to dwell among ideas—rational nature, human nature, natural rights, natural law, laws of history, human rights, Democracy, state of nature, principles, ideals—of another type altogether. 
 
Doctrines of innate inferiority no less than doctrines of “racism” and other fashionable “root causes” accounts of black rule in South Africa are alike functions of rationalism, for while they differ in degree, they are of one kind in relegating cultural considerations to the periphery (if there!). 
 
Mercer knows this. That which we now know as modern conservatism actually originated as a response to the rationalistic excesses of the Enlightenment. David Hume and, particularly, Edmund Burke, were among its most distinguished of representatives. In reading Cannibal it is hard not to see in its author the shades of her illustrious predecessors. Like these theorists from times past, Mercer compels her readers to recognize that the dislodging of moral ideals from the complex of historically and culturally-specific traditions that give them color promises calamitous consequences for all involved.
 
At the same time, however, Mercer—a self-identified “paleo-libertarian”—refuses to abandon rationalist talk of “natural rights.” 
 
That there is conflict between, on the one hand, Mercer’s affirmation of natural rights, and, on the other, the primacy that she ascribes to culture or tradition, is obvious. It is even possible that this tension in her text between the universal and the particular may be insuperable. But, ultimately, whatever criticism falls on Mercer for this must be qualified by the consideration that if there are tensions in Cannibal between these themes—and there undoubtedly are—it is only because, from the inception of Western philosophy some 2600 years ago, the same tensions have constituted the Western Mind itself. 
 
Permanence and flux, nature and convention, the universal and the particular—it was from a longing to discern the connection between the members of each of these dualisms that Western philosophy was born. To this day, the inquiry continues. 
 
Mercer’s commitment to natural rights reflects what the reader must recognize as a laudable attempt to preserve some sense of permanence undergirding the identity-extinguishing change that has engulfed her beloved South Africa since the abolition of apartheid. Her insistence upon the culturally-centered (culturally constituted?) nature of morality reconciles her—and us—to the fact that it is in vain, to say nothing of great agony, that we suppress or ignore the staggering variety of human customs in favor of a monolithic moral plan within the jurisdiction of which all human beings can be made to fall.
 
Mercer’s thought is distended between universal natural rights and particular cultural traditions, it is true. Yet as is the case with so many works of genius, this tension is as much one of Cannibal’s strengths as it is a weakness, for from it there springs an energy that is notable for its sense of urgency. 
 
Like Burke before her, Mercer, it is clear, is on a mission. Burke was consumed with the conflagration of the French Revolution that he believed threatened to tear European civilization asunder. Far from obscuring his ethical vision, I believe that much of the passion that informed it stemmed from a conflict in Burke’s consciousness between a recognition of both the universal demands of morality and the partiality that we owe to “the little platoons”—our local attachments—from which we derive our individual identities. This, though, is precisely the same war that rages within Mercer, and as it aided Burke in his contest with the evil of the French radicals, so too does it aid Mercer in her contest with the wickedness of the African National Congress and its supporters.
 
Cannibal is a woefully underappreciated book. A not inconsiderable number of otherwise astute reviewers seemed to have missed its main significance. This work is not primarily about “diversity,” “democracy,” “egalitarianism,” or “collectivism.” And it is certainly not about any conflicts within the Jewish community (Mercer is herself a Jew who remarks upon the role that South African Jews, including her father, played as critics of apartheid, as well as the role that Israel assumed as a stalwart ally of the Old South Africa). Cannibal isn’t even a book about inter-racial conflict.
 
Ultimately, as I read it, Cannibal is a brilliantly executed reenactment of the great Western drama, an epic contest between the universal and the particular, permanence and flux, nature, history, and convention. To the roster of the most colorful cast of characters that have, at various times, assumed center stage in this grand pageant we can now add the name of Ilana Mercer. 
 
Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa should be on the shelves of every thoughtful American. But conservatives especially need to attend to this book, for it is as intelligently, eloquently, and forcefully articulated a case against shaping political policy prescriptions according to universal abstractions as any that our generation has yet to produce.  
 
 
 
    
   
     
 
 
   
 
 
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